Saturday, 19 March 2016

Was John Holland the biological great-grandfather of Richard III?

Rumours have persisted for more than six hundred years that John Holland, Duke of Exeter, was the actual biological father of Richard of Conisburgh, who was legally the son of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.

The recent archaeological investigation of the remains of Richard of Conisburgh's grandson, King Richard III, concluded the patrilineally inherited Y-DNA of the skeleton does not match that of putative male-line living relatives. Of the 18 birth events which could misrepresent paternity, the birth of Richard of Conisburgh, paternal grandfather of Richard III (and Edward IV), is strikingly suspect.

While rumours of non-paternity were a common slander serving political ends, there are, aside from the Y-DNA results, historically notable anomalies in Richard of Conisburgh's relationship with his legal father, Edmund of Langley, and his elder brother, Edward. Edmund of Langley left Richard of Conisburgh, ostensibly the second of only two sons, out of his will. Edward also ignored his brother as a potential heir.

Edmund of Langley remained married to Richard of Conisburgh's mother, Isabella of Castille, until she died aged 37 in 1392. However, in the seventeen years after Richard was born, while both Edmund and Isabella were believed to be healthy and fertile, there were no more children, strongly suggesting they were estranged.

It tends to be considered a historical fact that Isabella had an affair with John Holland (maternal half brother to King Richard II). In her will she left her estate to King Richard II and asked him to give her son Richard an annuity of 500 marks. This arrangement is not inconsistent with the possibility that Richard of Conisburgh was the King's half nephew, and she knew the King was more likely to protect the interests of her "favourite" son, perhaps even against interference from her estranged husband.

The Y DNA haplotype of Richard III's skeletal remains was identified as G-P287. Trying to investigate the Holland family using wikipedia, and some google searching, it seems clear that no Y-carrying descendant of John Holland exists (his legitimate male line seems to have died out with his grandson, and of his three illegitimate sons the "Bastards of Exeter," I could find evidence only that one had an heiress).

The same is true for his brother, Thomas. However, intriguingly, there is an unsourced statement on the wikipedia page of his nephew, Edmund Holland, suggesting that Edmund's remains may have been recovered archaeologically on Île Lavrec, Île-de-Bréhat. In which case, if autosomal DNA can be recovered from both those remains and those of Richard III, they should be compared. If they are Edmund's remains (and assuming Richard III's biological father was Richard Plantagenet), there would be, at minimum, a second cousinship once removed between the remains. Richard III's father's maternal great-grandmother was Alianore Holland. However, if John Holland is the biological great-grandfather of Richard III, there would be an additional first cousin relationship (twice removed), leading to increased shared autosomal DNA, and the Y-DNA haplotype of Edmund's remains should be G-P287.

The only caveat is the possibility of another non-paternity event striking the five birth events between Edmund Holland and Richard III.

However, this mysterious Internet attestation that the remains of Edmund Holland may be in hand could also be misguided or false (I could find nothing definite about a Lavrec dig by googling, and the find may also be old and contaminated). If so, that would leave, as the next best option, testing the closest available male line descendants of John Holland's male line first cousins. And they do appear to be out there:

Obviously, over twenty-odd generations, the probability that some other paternity event in the line is not what it appears to be goes way up. It is possible John Holland himself was not even a Holland. However, that does not mean the investigation wouldn't be worthwhile. I've shown one descending branch in the Holland tree, approximately the most senior one, but there are several other offshoots. It is a very interesting family and people have been working for hundreds of years trying to figure out how some potential branches fit into the complete tree. By testing living descendants of branches that meet up farther and farther back (a triangulation technique that effectively worked to identify the Somerset Y type for several generations) the validity of the Y DNA inheritance can be demonstrated between certain points on the tree and branches can be slotted together.

Given that the Somerset lines did not match, researchers have apparently gone even farther back than Edward III trying to find Plantagenet Y DNA carriers many generations removed from Richard III, including through purported illegitimate early Plantagenet lines. Compared to that, working down from Robert de Holland may be a relatively pragmatic thing to try, even just for elimination. For all we know, the South African Hollands have already tested their Y DNA and identified their own haplotype (in which case, please let us know if it is or is not G-P287...)

I've been following the Richard III investigation for about two years now. For me, the last few months were not conducive to writing blogs (I expect to get back to my Loyalists blogs and some case studies shortly). As soon as the old blogging brain muscles had some energy though, this is the post they wanted to produce. On some level, what fascinates me about the Richard III Y DNA results is the possibility it may ultimately reveal something fundamental about animosities during the Wars of the Roses. A modern-day biological investigation really could unlock something important about major historical events from six hundred years ago.

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